David Stern, the former NBA Commissioner, died on Wednesday at the age of 77, the league announced.
Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage and underwent emergency surgery on December 12. Stern suffered a second brain hemorrhage and subsequent surgery on December 17.
He is survived by his wife, Dianne Brock Stern, and two sons, Eric and Andrew.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued the following statement:
“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action. He was a mentor and one of my dearest friends. We spent countless hours in the office, at arenas and on planes wherever the game would take us. Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals – preparation, attention to detail and hard work.
“Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration. Our deepest condolences go out to David’s wife, Dianne, their sons, Andrew and Eric, and their extended family, and we share our grief with everyone whose life was touched by him.”
Stern served as NBA Commissioner from 1984-2014. He is widely recognized for his role in the growth and expansion of the NBA and the sport around the world.
A legal role working with the NBA
Stern grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. He graduated from Rutgers in 1963 and Columbia Law School in 1966.
Shortly after graduating Columbia, Stern joined Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn, the law firm that represented the NBA. With the firm, Stern worked on cases that included the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 and the development of free agency.
Joining the NBA
In 1978, then-NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien convinced Stern to work for the league. Stern first joined as a counsel, until O’Brien created the role of executive vice president for Stern. Stern’s responsibilities included “marketing, television and public relations,” The New York Times reported in 1983.
Stern’s early work included the introduction of a salary cap to help control player salaries in a financially unstable league and the implementation of drug policies, which were a problem for the league.
In 1983, Stern was selected as the fourth commissioner of the NBA.
“I told [team owners] of David’s qualities and how I urged him to extend his work beyond the legal department,” O’Brien said at the time. “By creating the position for him, it made him the No. 2 man. I’m extremely pleased that they have made the No. 2 man, the No. 1 man.”
When Stern took the job, he spoke of expanding the league’s television ratings and expanding the game overseas.
A growing league
Stern’s hiring coincided with the introduction of several marquee players, including Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and John Stockton. The national popularity of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird was also gaining the league more attention.
The emergence of Jordan ushered in a new era of popularity, helped, in part, by sneaker companies like Nike and Adidas.
Under Stern, the NBA signed increasingly large TV deals, according to CBS — a two-year, $26 million deal with TBS in 1984; a four-year, $173 million deal with CBS in 1986; a four-year, $275 million deal with TNT and four-year, $601 million deal with NBC in 1990, to name a few.
The league expanded from 23 teams in 1983-84 to 29 teams by 1995-96. Under Stern, a total of seven new franchises were introduced. Several teams also relocated.
NBA TV ratings dipped following Jordan’s retirement. In the 2000s, the NBA introduced several changes, including the elimination of hand-checking to open up the game to draw more fans.
Despite occasional dips in interest and popularity, the NBA continued to grow under Stern. From 1990 to 2010, the salary cap rose from $20.6 million to over $60 million. In a 2006 profile of Stern, Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum wrote that league revenues had grown “twelvefold” under Stern.
Stern is perhaps most widely credited for growing the NBA internationally, as he helped open 13 global NBA offices and the staging of regular-season games in other countries.
Stern also helped oversee the creation of the WNBA in 1996.
Controversies during his tenure
Stern’s tenure as Commissioner was not without its bumps.
Stern oversaw five lockouts — three with players, two with referees — two of which, in 1999 and 2011, forced reduced seasons.
Stern was criticized for several policies, most famously the NBA’s dress code. In 2005, the league-mandated that players wear business casual clothing to games and wear a dress jacket while sitting on the bench. Some players accused the policy of being racist.
Other changes were considered flops. Players widely complained about a new ball that was introduced in 2006 until the league went back to the previous version.
The league drew negative headlines for several big altercations, most notoriously the “Malice at the Palace” fight between Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers players and fans in 2006, which resulted in historic suspensions and fines. Playoff altercations between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns also resulted in suspensions that affected the series outcomes.
Conspiracy theories surrounded some of the biggest moments during Stern’s tenure, though he denied them. The “frozen envelope” theory suggested an envelope was intentionally marked during the 1985 draft lottery to award the New York Knicks with the No. 1 pick, Patrick Ewing, to boost TV ratings. Stern famously lashed out at sports radio host Jim Rome for asking if the draft was rigged.
There were also theories that Michael Jordan’s first retirement in 1993 was due to a gambling suspension. Stern joked with ESPN about the rumor that he suspended Jordan in his own house: “My wife still wants to know where she was that day.”
Stern and the NBA came under fire in 2011 after vetoing a trade between the New Orleans Hornets, which the league ran at the time and the Los Angeles Lakers that would have sent star point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers. Some accused the NBA of trying to keep a large-market team like the Lakers from landing a star player.
Stern retired on February 1, 2014, 30 years to the day that he became NBA commissioner. Adam Silver succeeded him.
Stern was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
In 2019, Stern told ESPN’s The Undefeated that he rarely attended NBA games, but frequently watched from home. He remained involved in the game, working with companies that worked on the physical and mental health of players.
Stern told The Undefeated said he approved of the job Silver was doing, saying the NBA “couldn’t be in better shape.”